This blog post is included as part of the “I Am a Philanthropist” series, which highlights different ways that philanthropy students hope to create social impact. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the ideas, views or opinions of LAAF.
Increasing Young, Rural Civic Engagement
As a philanthropist, I believe my private resources should be used to reinforce democratic institutions and facilitate public-spirited reforms. American democracy today feels deeply flawed. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small minority, working class wages are stagnant, and, for some, the government feels oppressive and deeply unrepresentative. My philanthropic purpose deals directly with this dissonance. I seek to ensure people distanced from centers of power – whether by physical distance or because of social or historical marginalization – have access to the tools, capital, and empowerment to influence the policies and politics of this country.
When I began doing research in the space, I noticed that many active and mission-driven organizations align with my purpose. However, few organizations focus closely on young, rural populations and consider them in the context of local and state elections. As a young voter from a small town in Iowa, I experienced this unmet need firsthand when I was filling out my absentee ballot in early November. I had no idea who the people on the ballot were, what power they had, and I couldn’t find reliable information online. Voter turnout in local and state elections is embarrassingly low, which suggests that people are not well-informed about the political power closest to their lives. I formed my social change goal around this unmet need. I feel empowered to work in this space because of my background in political science, my personal experience growing up in a rural community and my unique insights into young voters through my presence on a university campus.
My goal is to engage young, rural people to vote in local and state elections by facilitating a relationship between school and city governments. I hope to create an internship and mentorship program through which high school student leaders serve internships with city politicians. Students would learn about the importance of local political power and then serve as ‘voting liaisons,’ bringing information about voting and local elections back to their schools. These student leaders, with the help of a mentor teacher, could also organize speaking events, roundtable discussions with local leaders and field trips to City Hall. This program would address obstacles to voting by increasing access to information on local politicians and creating a school-wide culture of civic engagement. The program would be designed to show students how voting can produce tangible outcomes on issues important to them. I would like to initiate this program in my own hometown, which has a number of social and environmental conditions that make it a prime location. It is a small, close- knit community with an active school board and a passionate group of students and teachers. Iowa is a politically important state during presidential election cycles, so the existing political infrastructure could be extended to the local context. Local political institutions impact our everyday lives and increased voter turnout, even by a few hundred people, can feasibly swing an election. Young people could feel the results of their civic engagement in local elections and institutions, with the desired effect of greater participation in other elections too. The goal is to establish a life-long commitment to voting through peer engagement, empowerment, and education.